Ortiz going out with head held high

He entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship as "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy."

Fifteen years later, Tito Ortiz is retiring as a man.

The maturation of one of mixed martial arts’ greatest fighters was on display in what likely will be his final pre-fight news conference. Ortiz, 37, is not only facing longtime rival Forrest Griffin on Saturday night’s UFC 148 pay-per-view show in Las Vegas. He also is being inducted into UFC’s Hall of Fame.

The honor is well-deserved — although it might not have happened without Ortiz reinventing himself.

"It’s been a reincarnation," Ortiz told a packed crowd of journalists and fans Thursday morning at the Encore Hotel’s XS Nightclub. "Hard work does pay off. I’ve got the respect of the fans and the company."

After major neck, back and knee surgeries, Ortiz is a shell of the fighter whose nearly 3-1/2-year run (2000-03) as UFC’s light-heavyweight champion remains the company’s longest title reign. Father time and a UFC-record 27 fights totaling almost five full hours of combat also took a heavy toll.

But when it appeared his career was in jeopardy several years ago, Ortiz salvaged it. And in the process, he grew up.

"He seems to be in a great mental spot right now," UFC executive Marc Ratner told FOXSports.com. "He’s changed."

Ratner has witnessed that transformation firsthand. As owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta struggled to keep UFC afloat after their 2001 purchase, Ortiz’s popularity — and notoriety — went a long way toward helping the company achieve mainstream popularity.

Ortiz, though, was often his own worst enemy in the way he carried himself, especially behind the scenes. Trying to publicly humiliate UFC president Dana White — who can carry a grudge longer than the Hatfields and McCoys — almost resulted in career suicide.

Gone now are the childish antics and attacks on White that made Ortiz so reviled inside the promotion. Ortiz’s days as an MMA villain among most fans have ended, as well.

As popular opponents from his generation such as Chuck Liddell and the Shamrock brothers (Ken and Frank) faded from the Octagon, Ortiz kept battling even as he was knocked for not fighting more despite his ailments. His upset submission victory over rising star Ryan Bader in July 2011 was Ortiz’s first win since 2006.

By that point, Ortiz had changed his "Bad Boy" nickname to "The People’s Champion" because the former projected too negative an image for a father of four children. Having to overcome a rough Southern California upbringing with a drug-addicted father and gang temptations, Ortiz finally realized what a positive role model he could become for other youths facing similar challenges.

"Before the Bader fight, I got sick of people talking smack and judging me in and out of the company," Ortiz said. "They would have an image on me that I really wasn’t. It hurt. I’m a sensitive cat. I’ve gone through a lot. I’ve shown people I’ve been able to get through adversity in life.

"I want to show what I’ve achieved and be in a positive limelight for children, to show you can be a true champion if you work hard."

Ortiz admits his post-UFC career isn’t set. He said there are potential broadcasting opportunities for FOX, ESPN and the UFC itself. There also assuredly will be a strong temptation to fight again, like so many of his over-the-hill peers who thought they could walk away from another lucrative payday only to return.

Ortiz, though, is so insistent he’s "100 percent" through that he interrupted a reporter’s question about the possibility of a later comeback.

"I’ve done what I want to do," said Ortiz, who enters the Griffin bout with a 17-10-1 career record. "I’m going to take a month of vacation and enjoy life a little bit.

"I’ve sacrificed a lot. It’s hard to have children grow up so fast. I don’t want to be a father like mine who wasn’t there because of drugs. That’s why it’s time for me to say goodbye."

He can say it with pride.